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Open agricultural burning is an unnecessary and often harmful practice occuring with dismaying frequency throughout the Andes region, concluded a recent meeting of experts gathered in Lima, Peru to discuss the problem and begin identifying win-win solutions.
Many farmers burn stubble after a harvest or as a way to clear land, but such burning damages soil fertility by destroying organic matter and soil structure. Over time, crop yields decrease precipitously on burned lands, threatening food security, found the conference. Smoke from fires also poses a threat to human health, and the flame can spread to nearby buildings and houses, as well as local fields and forests.
More recently, studies have shown that particle pollution, especially black carbon produced directly by agricultural fires, as well as the additional fires they cause may pose a threat to Andean glaciers, by darkening their surfaces and increasing melting. Many of these glaciers, and the Andean snowpack form a key source of water for crop irrigation during the drier seasons, which will become even more important in a less predictable future climate. Most Andean glacier systems already are among the most rapidly retreating in the world.
The good news is that many alternatives exist to agricultural burning. The conference, meeting at the headquarters of the Peruvian National Water Authority (ANA), heard presentations on no-till methods that plant into the stubble, an alternative that also enriches the soil while preserving moisture. Other no-burn methods of “conservation agriculture,” which is already widely practiced in other countries of Latin America such as Argentina and Brazil, involve crop rotation and related approaches that decrease or eliminate the need to burn. Harvest of stubble for energy, through manufacture of pellets was another approach reported to the conference that is being tried today in Chile.
Over time, crop yields decrease precipitously on burned lands, threatening food security. Smoke from fires also poses a threat to human health.
The conference met February 12-13 and included over 80 participants from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay. It took place under the auspices of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), an initiative aimed at early action to bring multiple benefits to health, crops and the climate by addressing pollutants such as black carbon and ground-level ozone, and was organized by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) along with several partner organizations.
The conference was part of the CCAC’s work in mitigating the contribution of agriculture to the air pollution that affects health, food security and climate. In the open-burning component of its agriculture work, the CCAC seeks to develop viable options for the Andes along with the Eastern Himalayas, two cryosphere regions particularly sensitive to emissions of black carbon. The CCAC’s primary aims are to determine the nature of open burning (who burns what, when, where and why), create regional open burning networks and partners, and develop shovel-ready pilot mitigation projects.
This CCAC effort on open burning will next begin to look at possible projects to demonstrate no-burn methods for a variety of crops and countries. Further information, conference presentations and a full summary can be found at www.openburningcryosphere.org.
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